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Find the perfect mic for you and your videos

Anton De Ionno
April 27, 2016 by Anton De Ionno Staff

It doesn’t matter if you’re shooting a wordy rom-com, a vérité documentary, or your grandmother’s wedding: getting high-quality, audible sound is always necessary.

With this in mind, finding the right microphone (at the right price) is as imperative as finding the perfect camera, lights, or breakfast burrito supplier for you next film shoot.

Before you film

In order to choose the right microphone, you first need to know what kind of sound you’ll be recording, in what environment, and from what distance. For example, is there dialogue in most of your scenes? Are you shooting from close-up or a large distance? Do the scenes take place outside or in noisy locations?


#protip: it’s usually best to avoid shooting conversation on city streets at rush hour, in malls on Saturdays, and factories where lawn mowers are made.

The kind of dialogue, shot, and location you’re shooting is going to dictate the kind of microphone you can use. If you’re shooting chit chat from a snazzy, super wide angle (i.e., a window, crane, or rooftop), then a boom mic is out of the question. However, if you’re shooting a cozy scene of a couple whispering sweet nothings to each other in bed, then a boom mic dangling just above the lovers will do the trick perfectly!

With this in mind, if you’re planning on renting or buying microphones and sound equipment for a specific project, don’t make any decisions until the script, shot list, and/or shooting style have been decided upon!

How to choose your mic: three favorites explained 

Boom mics


Also known as: shotgun mics.

Perfect for: dialogue, close-ups, interviews, mic-in-the-face gags.

A boom mic is one of most recognizable pieces of equipment , and while holding one for hours at a time may require some patience and killer biceps, they’re relatively easy to use.

Not suitable for: super-wide shots, single-person shoots, shoots without a designated mic operator.

If you’re a fiercely independent filmmaker who likes to shoot alone, or you’ve simply been slugged with shooting your cousin’s Bar Mitzvah because you’re the only one who can work the camera, then a boom won’t be suitable for you. While many boom mics can also be mounted directly on a camera, booms are most effective when you have a sturdy someone to hold the mic (mounted on the end of a boom pole), either above or below the speakers just out of frame.

Additionally, if you’re going to shoot scenes a significant distance away from your actors, then your boom operator won’t be able to get the mic close enough to capture the dialogue clearly. In these cases, a lavalier mic is your best bet (and those bad boys are explained below!).

Price range: You can swing a serviceable mic, along with all the necessary equipment (such as the pole, attachments, microphone sock, connector plugs, and cable) for as low as $60. On the other end of the scale, you can pick up a state-of-the-art model for a cool $999.

Cheaper boom mics are absolutely going to get the job done and capture your dialogue better than a built-in camera mic. However, the sound captured in pricier models will be sharper, and shouldn’t be affected by wind and humidity the way less expensive models often are.

Handheld mics


Also known as: wireless mics, cone mics

Perfect for: on-the-street interviews, large events, speeches, musical performances

A handheld microphone is probably what comes to mind when most folks hear the word “microphone.” But they’re not necessarily the most common mic on a set. This is because handheld mics are, as their name states, held in your hand, and this comes along with both pros and cons.

Handheld mics are speaker-operated (meaning, the person speaking is usually holding their own mic). The speaker can freely move the mic without a boom operator trying desperately to keep up — but it also means the person controlling the mic might not know how best to utilize it, since they may not be a sound expert themselves.

If you’re wary of the latter, then it’s best to mount the handheld on a microphone stand and let your sound expert or gaffer mark where the speaker should place their feet.

Not suitable for: narrative films, sports/exercise videos, windy or noisy locations

Handheld microphones essentially take narrative film off the table. Unless you plan on challenging your audience’s perception of reality, having your actors hold microphones to their mouths as they deliver dialogue is going to look pretty terrible.

The same can be said for instructional and exercise videos where the host needs access to both their hands; a boom or lavalier mic would totally do the trick!

Additionally, because handheld microphones capture a wider dome of sound than a boom (and certainly more than lavalier), they’re more likely to capture surrounding environmental sounds. So, if you’re shooting on a windy tundra or at a blustery beach, then a lavalier mic would be a much wiser choice.

Price range: There’s a huge variety of handheld microphones available, and, unlike boom and lavalier mics, they’re often available at general appliance, electrical, and department stores. You can procure yourself an affordable handheld for about $80, though you’d need a transmitter and receiver would necessary to use this (or an XLR cable if you don’t want to go wireless). Or, you could find a very good mid-range model (including the transmitter) for about $500. 

However, super inexpensive handheld microphones are likely to result in crackly, less-precise audio, so it’s worth throwing a couple extra dollars at one if you plan on using it frequently.

Lavalier mics


Also known as: lapel mic, lav, wireless mic, clip-on mic

Perfect for: shooting from long distances, exercise or active demonstration videos, tours

Lavaliers are the Shirley Temple of microphones: they’re super cute, were born during the Depression, and perform well even atop a windy Swiss mountain. There are a variety of lavalier styles and sizes, but the main appeal is that they don’t require the subject or sound technician to hold a physical microphone in order to capture and record audio.

Most lavaliers are pinned to the subject’s outerwear (often a collar or lapel), but there are a number of ways to conceal them so that viewers can’t see the mic at all. Lavaliers are most commonly associated with instructional demonstrations, speeches, and interviews, but they’re also great for recording dialogue if you’re shooting in a very wide frame or from a great distance. In these instances, a mounted camera mic would be too far away, and a boom would need to enter the frame in order to capture the dialogue.

Not suitable for: musical performances, street interviews, nude scenes

For on-the-street interviews, the added fussiness and time of attaching the mic to passers-by means that a handheld or boom would be a much easier option. For musical performances; the lavalier will do a fine job of capturing the singer’s vocals, but you’ll need an additional mic to capture the instruments being played.

Lastly, if you’re shooting actors in intimate scenes or states of undress, concealing a lavalier is going to be uncomfortable and challenging, so a boom mic overhead will certainly suffice!

Price range: Some lavaliers are designed to hook straight into mobile devices and may only set you back $15 for both the mic and cable. If you’re looking for something spiffier, a name-brand, mid-range lavalier set will likely cost you around $150 (and that particular mic does not require a mobile device). 

Putting it all together

Your sound recording options aren’t limited to just these three popular microphones, but one of the options is likely to do the trick for most video projects. 

It’s also imperative to test your sound before committing hours of footage to celluloid, so experiment with your equipment in different environments before you go out and shoot. If you’re nervous about sound, always reach out to filmmakers you admire and whose video’s sound quality is impressive, and ask if they’d inform you of what equipment they used. In the wise words of his highness John Waters; “A ‘no’ is free.”

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p>Once you’ve picked your mic, pick up some useful best practices for recording and editing sound, and ensure your films are up to sonic snuff!

12 Comments

Jos Vecht Plus

Thanks, with a lavalier microfoon I have the problem that when the person moves the lavalier might touch other parts of e.g. the dress, jacket or coat. It damages the audio. Is there something simple to avoid that so not having to interrupt the speaker when it happens?

Anton De Ionno Staff

Hi Jos! Great question, unfortunately avoiding a lavalier mic knocking against clothing (and hence, damaging your audio) is pretty much unavoidable if you wish to conceal the microphone.

However, if you don't mind the microphone being visible (or are shooting from enough distance that it wouldn't be visible) then attaching the lavalier to the outer layer of your subjects' clothing should avoid that unpleasant scratching sound. (Keep in mind you may still get that scratching sound if your subject is prone to vigorous movement, as their outer layer of clothing may crinkle or fold-in on itself if they are moving erratically.) :)

Gregory Stone Plus

Actually it is avoidable for most of the cases. Check out two products called Rycote Stickies and Rycote Undercover (B&H sells these). When used in conjunction, it can eliminate virtually all lav clothing noise and allows you to place the lav under clothing, inside hats, behind hair, and the like. There is only a minor EQ adjustment needed to compensate for the covering of the mic which can be done in post. Another great product is the Røde invisilav. Another common cheap hack is to use Dr. Scholls Corn Covers. They have a nice little opening to place the mic and stick to skin easily; however these work best with small lavs like the Countrymen mics - but then those are pricy, albeit awesome sounding, mics. Good luck!

Jackie Alberto Plus

I shoot amateur/wanna be pro wedding/birthday/any special occasion video and want to know what mic works best for this? I shot my sisters wedding and the audio (with kids background noise came out terrible) I wish I had used a mic.

Anton De Ionno Staff

Hi Jackie! All three types of microphones in this article (boom/shotgun, handheld and lavalier) would work for a special occasion video. The mic you choose will depend on the factors I bring up in the article (such as whether you want the mic visible, whether you're shooting from a long distance, whether you're shooting indoors or outdoors etc.)

If you're shooting these events alone, then you won't be able to use a boom mic on a pole (bc you would need someone to hold it while you shoot the video). Likewise, if it's a wedding then those getting married may not want a lavalier mic and battery clipped to their suit or dress.

If you're able to get close to the subjects, then a boom/shotgun mic mounted on your camera is probably your best option! However, it does very much depend on the specifics of what and where you're shooting. The mounted shotgun is the best all-round for events but the next time you're going to shoot an event, get all the information (how close you can get, where it's happening etc.) and take another look at this article to make an informed decision. Hope that helps!

Danny Grizzle

On-camera mics are not good for much except ambiance and a sync track for double-system sound. There is a ton of useful info about production audio out there on the interwebs, but a few quick pointers. 1) There is no such thing as a telephoto microphone. 2) There is no substitute for mic placement as close as possible to the source of sound. 3) Directional mics such as shotguns and cardiods mentioned in this article are not exempt from the rules above, but they do reject off-axis sound a little and thus work a little better when you can't follow mic placement rules. They can buy you a few extra inches to move a mic out of frame, not a few extra feet.

Finally, if you want to benefit your skills with durable universal fundamentals instead of memorizing 1001 tricks, study up on a principle of physics called the inverse square law, which describes the propagation of light and sound. I tried to add a simple practical explanation here, but hit the length limit.

Jos Vecht Plus

Many thanks Anton and Gregory. I will study your suggestions.

Robert Batte Business

Anton,

Nice piece. Thanks for the info. I think you could expand upon this in a future posting by discussing microphone recording patterns. I attended a Nikon Video Workshop and learned a lot about omnidirectional versus bidirectional versus shotgun versus cardiod. In Jackie's case above at her sisters wedding, it is pretty clear that an external mic was needed but had it been a shotgun mic with a large coverage area, she would still have picked up the kids having fun. To isolate the wedding, a mic with a narrow pattern would have helped. Do a Google image search for "Microphone recording patterns" and you will get a number of really nice images that help to better visualize what will be captured by each type of mic.

Danny Grizzle

Inverse square law, practical application: Anytime you double the distance (x2) of mic to subject, you get 1/4 the audio. More important for audio, every time you cut mic placement distance in half, it will yield 4x better signal-to-noise. Nothing can compensate for proper mic placement. The benefits are enormous. In the question above, event videography, putting the mic close to your subject not only vastly improves capture of the desired sound, but it also dramatically decreases capture of undesired sound (background noise, children, etc.)

Regardless of type of mic, one often overlooked method to rig the mic (wired vs wireless vs double system audio) is by using a plant mic. At a cost much less than a decent wireless system, you can hide a miniature recorder such as the Tascam DR-10X in clothing same as you would a wireless transmitter. (The Tascam DR-10CS would be even better for use with a lavalier, but this recorder is not available in the U.S. due to patent problems.)

WholyFit Business

How do you hook up the mic to the video camera? I am using a Gopro and lavalier with a big speaker right now, but I would like to feed the audio right into the camera. ?

Emerson Madrid

Then if I'm shooting a short film alone, which mic is the most appropiated?

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